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Thoughtful Thursday: Thanksgiving Poems

Since we will be taking a break from posting on Thanksgiving day itself, today’s Thoughtful Thursday offers up some Thanksgiving poetry for you and your family to enjoy. We begin with two poems from Paul Lawrence Dunbar (1872-1906), who was one of the first African American poets to gain national recognition. You will note the distinctively different voices in these two poems, classic examples of the breadth of his poetry writing. As James Weldon Johnson wrote in his preface to his Book of American Poetry “Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the United States to show a combined mastery over poetic material and poetic technique, to reveal innate literary distinction in what he wrote, and to maintain a high level of performance. He was the first to rise to a height from which he could take a perspective view of his own race. He was the first to see objectively its humor, its superstitions, its short-comings; the first to feel sympathetically its heart-wounds, its yearnings, its aspirations, and to voice them all in a purely literary form.”

Next up is the delightful Elizabeth Alexander (b.1962). A celebrated poet who serves as
a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Alexander taught poetry for 15 years at Yale University (and chaired their African American Studies Department) before joining the faculty at Columbia University. Alexander also currently serves as the Director of Creativity and Free Expression at the Ford Foundation. In 2009 she composed and delivered the poem “Praise Song for the Day” for the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Here Alexander whets our appetite for the Thanksgiving meal with her ode to butter.

Alberto Alvaro Ríos (b. 1952) was born in Nogales, Arizona. Arizona State University in Tempe, where he has taught since 1982. In 2013, Ríos was named the inaugural state poet laureate of Arizona. He is the author of many poetry collections, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2002), which was nominated for the National Book Award. He was elected a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2014.

Enjoy, and Happy Thanksgiving!!

A Thanksgiving Poem

The sun hath shed its kindly light,
Our harvesting is gladly o’er
Our fields have felt no killing blight,
Our bins are filled with goodly store.

From pestilence, fire, flood, and sword
We have been spared by thy decree,
And now with humble hearts, O Lord,
We come to pay our thanks to thee.

We feel that had our merits been
The measure of thy gifts to us,
We erring children, born of sin,
Might not now be rejoicing thus.

No deed of our hath brought us grace;
When thou were nigh our sight was dull,
We hid in trembling from thy face,
But thou, O God, wert merciful.

Thy mighty hand o’er all the land
Hath still been open to bestow
Those blessings which our wants demand
From heaven, whence all blessings flow.

Thou hast, with ever watchful eye,
Looked down on us with holy care,
And from thy storehouse in the sky
Hast scattered plenty everywhere.

Then lift we up our songs of praise
To thee, O Father, good and kind;
To thee we consecrate our days;
Be thine the temple of each mind.

With incense sweet our thanks ascend;
Before thy works our powers pall;
Though we should strive years without end,
We could not thank thee for them all.

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Signs of the Times

Air a-gittin’ cool an’ coolah,
Frost a-comin’ in de night,
Hicka’ nuts an’ wa’nuts fallin’,
Possum keepin’ out o’ sight.
Tu’key struttin’ in de ba’nya’d,
Nary a step so proud ez his;
Keep on struttin’, Mistah Tu’key,
Yo’ do’ know whut time it is.

Cidah press commence a-squeakin’
Eatin’ apples sto’ed away,
Chillun swa’min’ ‘roun’ lak ho’nets,
Huntin’ aigs ermung de hay.
Mistah Tu’key keep on gobblin’
At de geese a-flyin’ souf,
Oomph! dat bird do’ know whut’s comin’;
Ef he did he’d shet his mouf.

Pumpkin gittin’ good an’ yallah
Mek me open up my eyes;
Seems lak it’s a-lookin’ at me
Jes’ a-la’in’ dah sayin’ “Pies.”
Tu’key gobbler gwine ‘roun’ blowin’,
Gwine ‘roun’ gibbin’ sass an’ slack;
Keep on talkin’, Mistah Tu’key,
You ain’t seed no almanac.

Fa’mer walkin’ th’oo de ba’nya’d
Seein’ how things is comin’ on,
Sees ef all de fowls is fatt’nin’ —
Good times comin’ sho’s you bo’n.
Hyeahs dat tu’key gobbler braggin’,
Den his face break in a smile —
Nebbah min’, you sassy rascal,
He’s gwine nab you atter while.

Choppin’ suet in de kitchen,
Stonin’ raisins in de hall,
Beef a-cookin’ fu’ de mince meat,
Spices groun’ — I smell ‘em all.
Look hyeah, Tu’key, stop dat gobblin’,
You ain’ luned de sense ob feah,
You ol’ fool, yo’ naik’s in dangah,
Do’ you know Thanksgibbin’s hyeah?

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Butter

My mother loves butter more than I do,
more than anyone. She pulls chunks off
the stick and eats it plain, explaining
cream spun around into butter! Growing up
we ate turkey cutlets sauteed in lemon
and butter, butter and cheese on green noodles,
butter melting in small pools in the hearts
of Yorkshire puddings, butter better
than gravy staining white rice yellow,
butter glazing corn in slipping squares,
butter the lava in white volcanoes
of hominy grits, butter softening
in a white bowl to be creamed with white
sugar, butter disappearing into
whipped potatoes, with pineapple,
butter melted and curdy to pour
over pancakes, butter licked off the plate
with warm Alaga syrup. When I picture
the good old days I am grinning greasy
with my brother, having watched the tiger
chase his tail and turn to butter. We are
Mumbo and Jumbo’s children despite
historical revision, despite
our parent’s efforts, glowing from the inside
out, one hundred megawatts of butter.

When Giving Is All We Have

One river gives
Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,
Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

Alberto Ríos

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